Plastic in Britain’s seals, dolphins and whales

University of Exeter Read full Science Daily summary here

  1. S. E. Nelms, J. Barnett, A. Brownlow, N. J. Davison, R. Deaville, T. S. Galloway, P. K. Lindeque, D. Santillo, B. J. Godley. Microplastics in marine mammals stranded around the British coast: ubiquitous but transitory?Scientific Reports, 2019; 9 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-37428-3

Microplastics have been found in the guts of every marine mammal examined in a new study of animals washed up on Britain’s shores.

Researchers from the University of Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) examined 50 animals from 10 species of dolphins, seals and whales — and found microplastics (less than 5mm) in them all.

Most of the particles (84%) were synthetic fibres — which can come from sources including clothes, fishing nets and toothbrushes — while the rest were fragments, whose possible sources include food packaging and plastic bottles.

“It’s shocking — but not surprising — that every animal had ingested microplastics,” said lead author Sarah Nelms, of the University of Exeter and PML.

“The number of particles in each animal was relatively low (average of 5.5 particles per animal), suggesting they eventually pass through the digestive system, or are regurgitated.

“We don’t yet know what effects the microplastics, or the chemicals on and in them, might have on marine mammals.

“More research is needed to better understand the potential impacts on animal health.”…

Increased soil carbon increases crop yield — to a point

They found that the largest gains in yield occurred between concentrations of 0.1 percent and 2 percent of soil organic matter.
“…we now have numbers, not just unverified ideas, that if you build organic matter you can improve outcomes — such as less fertilizer and increased yield.”

Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies Read Science Daily article here 

  • Emily E. Oldfield, Mark A. Bradford, Stephen A. Wood. Global meta-analysis of the relationship between soil organic matter and crop yieldsSOIL, 2019; 5 (1): 15 DOI: 10.5194/soil-5-15-2019

While policymakers often tout the benefits of increasing soil organic matter as a way to boost agricultural yield, there is limited evidence that this strategy actually works. A new study quantifies this relationship, finding that greater concentrations of organic matter indeed produce greater yields — but only to a certain point.

Specifically, they find that increasing soil organic carbon — a common proxy for soil organic matter — boosts yields until concentrations reach about 2 percent, at which level they tend to hit a saturation point. Thereafter, the researchers say, the increase in SOM begins to deliver diminished returns.

Even still, they find that roughly two-thirds of agricultural soils dedicated to two of the world’s most important staple crops — maize and wheat — fall below that 2-percent threshold, suggesting the vast potential for agricultural policies that promote increased soil organic matter.

…It is well understood that building and maintaining soil organic matter is key to soil health. (SOM refers to organic matter found in the soil, including plant and animal materials that are in the process of decomposition.) It strengthens the capacity of soils to retain water and nutrients, supports structure that promotes drainage and aeration, and helps minimize the loss of topsoil through erosion.

For years, policymakers have emphasized the role of soil organic matter in a series of programs, including the “4 per 1,000” initiative of the Soils for Food Security — which emerged from the COP21 negotiations — and the U.S.’s “Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science.”

And yet when it comes to its role in promoting crop production, there’s been a surprising dearth of quantitative evidence, Bradford says. For Bradford, this gap in knowledge has been a nagging concern for nearly a decade; a 2010 National Research Council report on sustainable agriculture described organic matter as the cornerstone of most sustainability and soil quality initiatives, he recalls, yet offered no information on how much was actually needed to increase crop yields and reduce fertilizer application.

Tipping Point: Greenland ice melting four times faster than in 2003

Greenland is melting faster than scientists previously thought — and will likely lead to faster sea level rise — thanks to the continued, accelerating warming of the Earth’s atmosphere, a new study has found.

Read ScienceDaily summary here

Michael Bevis el al., “Accelerating changes in ice mass within Greenland, and the ice sheet’s sensitivity to atmospheric forcing,”  PNAS (2019).  www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1806562116

…The key finding from their study: Southwest Greenland, which previously had not been considered a serious threat, will likely become a major future contributor to sea level rise.

“We knew we had one big problem with increasing rates of ice discharge by some large outlet glaciers,” he said. “But now we recognize a second serious problem: Increasingly, large amounts of ice mass are going to leave as meltwater, as rivers that flow into the sea.”

The findings could have serious implications for coastal U.S. cities, including New York and Miami, as well as island nations that are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.

….”The only thing we can do is adapt and mitigate further global warming — it’s too late for there to be no effect,” he said. “This is going to cause additional sea level rise. We are watching the ice sheet hit a tipping point.”

Agrivoltaics: Solar Panels on Farms Could Be a Win-Win

Massachusetts is leading the charge in dual-use solar installations, making it possible to grow some crops and pasture animals while generating clean energy.

By Sarah Shemkus Read full Civil Eats article here

he solar panels in the fields at the University of Massachusetts Crop Research and Education Center don’t look like what most of us have come to expect. Instead of hunkering close to the earth, they’re mounted seven feet off the ground, with ample room for farmers or cows to wander underneath. Panels are separated by two- and three-foot gaps, instead of clustering tightly together. Light streams through these spaces and, underneath, rows of leafy kale and Brussels sprouts replace the typical bare earth or grass.

This unusual arrangement is one of the first examples of a dual-use solar installation—sometimes called agrivoltaics. It’s a photovoltaic array that’s raised far enough off the ground and spaced in such a way that some crops can still grow around and beneath the panels. The goal is to help farmers diversify their income through renewable energy generation, while keeping land in agricultural use and reducing greenhouse gas emissions….

A global agenda for collective action on soil carbon

Policymakers and investors have perceived securing soil organic carbon as too difficult, with uncertain returns. But new technical, policy and financial opportunities offer hope for rapid progress.

Sonja Vermeulen, Deborah Bossio, Johannes Lehmann, Paul Luu, Keith Paustian, Christopher Webb, Flore Augé, Imelda Bacudo, Tobias Baedeker, Tanja Havemann, Ceris Jones, Richard King, Matthew Reddy,
Ishmael Sunga, Moritz Von Unger and Matthew Warnken. Nature Sustainability | VOL 2 | JANUARY 2019 | 2–4 | www.nature.com/natsustain Read full NATURE article here and Nature4Climate article here (and below)

“It’s too hard and too uncertain,” has long been the response of policymakers and investors in response to working on ways to conserve and improve carbon in soil. But, recent new momentum summarised in a paper in Nature Sustainability and authored by actors from government, science and the private sector offers hope in the form of technical, policy and financial opportunities for rapid progress.

Building soil organic carbon helps water cycling, agricultural productivity, as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation. The amount of soil carbon globally is triple that of the atmosphere, making soil a useful tool for combatting climate change. A new global analysis … shows that building soil organic carbon on all corn and wheat lands could close the yield gaps for those crops by between 1/3 and 2/3 while also minimizing dependence on synthetic fertilizers.

“Momentum for action on soil organic carbon is indeed growing in political, financial and technical circles to address multiple sustainability goals, but not nearly fast enough.” says Deborah Bossio, Lead Soil Scientist at The Nature Conservancy and co-author of the paper published in Nature Sustainability.  Authors of the paper conclude that ‘a clear focus on early wins and on continued collaboration will lay the ground for gains in soil organic carbon at scale within an urgent timeframe.’

Under the UN Climate Convention (UNFCCC) only eight countries include targets for soil organic carbon within their intended mitigation options – (Armenia, Burkina Faso, China, Japan, Malawi, Namibia, Uruguay and Zambia). That said, a few have policies that support stronger action, ranging from Canada, which recognizes the potential of soil organic carbon under conserved forests and wetlands, to Bhutan, with its sustainable soil policy.

In addition, new financing instruments are emerging to support better environmental management of soils beyond climate concerns, such as funds (for example, the Land Degradation Neutrality Fund, managed by Mirova, and Clarmondial’s Food Securities Fund) and loan programmes (for example, the Rabobank and UNEP Kickstart Food programme).

Pioneering initiatives – both regulatory and voluntary – at national and sub-national levels, also provide evidence of economic viability and rapid results at the local level. Australia and California are examples of early adopters of market-based approaches to raising soil organic carbon. Australia’s Carbon Farming Initiative, a legislated voluntary offsets scheme implemented by the Emission Reduction Fund, has awarded contracts with an approximate value of A$200 million to landholders and farmers to earn carbon credits from soil organic carbon projects on degraded land, supporting a wide range of activities from rotational grazing to reduced tillage.

In the private sector, a growing number of companies are also including soil organic carbon within their set of options to build resilience and long-term profitability of agricultural value chains. Danone, Mars, Bayer, Coca Cola, Fonterra, Diageo and Olam are multinational examples.

“We need a new mindset,” said Deborah Bossio. “We need to give up on the idea that it’s all too hard. To combat climate change and to produce healthy diets, we need every tool in the toolbox. We might not think about soil all the time, but boy we notice it when it’s gone.”

Climate change tipping point could be coming sooner — Vegetation and soil may not be able to sequester as much carbon due to variability in soil moisture

A net gain of carbon on the land surface, would actually be almost twice as high if it weren’t for the variability in soil moisture

Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science Read full ScienceDaily article here

  • Julia K. Green, Sonia I. Seneviratne, Alexis M. Berg, Kirsten L. Findell, Stefan Hagemann, David M. Lawrence & Pierre Gentine. Large influence of soil moisture on long-term terrestrial carbon uptakeNature, 2019 DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0848-x

A new study confirms the urgency to tackle climate change. While it’s known that extreme weather events can affect the year-to-year variability in carbon uptake, and some researchers have suggested that there may be longer-term effects, this study is the first to actually quantify the effects through the 21st century and demonstrates that wetter-than-normal years do not compensate for losses in carbon uptake during dryer-than-normal years, caused by events such as droughts or heatwaves.

…Anthropogenic emissions of CO2 — emissions caused by human activities — are increasing the concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere and producing unnatural changes to the planet’s climate system. The effects of these emissions on global warming are only being partially abated by the land and ocean. Currently, the ocean and terrestrial biosphere (forests, savannas, etc.) are absorbing about 50% of these releases — explaining the bleaching of coral reefs and acidification of the ocean, as well as the increase of carbon storage in our forests.

“It is unclear, however, whether the land can continue to uptake anthropogenic emissions at the current rates,” says Pierre Gentine…

Permafrost Is Warming Around the Globe, Study Shows, Raising Concerns about Surge in Planet-Warming Methane and CO2

By Bob Berwyn See full Inside Climate News article here

Vast areas of permafrost around the world warmed significantly over the past decade, intensifying concerns about accelerated releases of heat-trapping methane and carbon dioxide as microbes decompose the thawing organic soils.

The warming trend is documented in a new study published Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications. Detailed data from a global network of permafrost test sites show that, on average, permafrost regions around the world—in the Arctic, Antarctic and the high mountains—warmed by a half degree Fahrenheit between 2007 and 2016.

The most dramatic warming was found in the Siberian Arctic, where temperatures in the deep permafrost increased by 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Along with increased greenhouse gas emissions, the disintegration of permafrost is causing big problems for communities in the Arctic by damaging roads and other infrastructure as the land destabilizes and erodes. The permafrost meltdown also threatens ecosystems with massive discharges of silt and sediments into rivers and coastal areas.

The findings, from what the authors describe as the first globally consistent assessment of permafrost temperature change, add to an expanding body of global warming evidence, including studies published in just the past week showing that the world’s oceans have been warming at an accelerating rating and Antarctica has been losing six times more ice mass yearly than it was four decades ago.  

…..By some estimates, the Arctic permafrost contains enough carbon to nearly double the amount of CO2 currently in the Earth’s atmosphere. A rapid meltdown would be disastrous because it could release a lot of CO2—in addition to methane, a powerful short-lived climate pollutant—to the atmosphere, where it would cause additional warming, said Ted Schuur, a permafrost expert at Northern Arizona University…

Waves are increasingly stronger as a consequence of climate change

University of California – Santa Cruz Read ScienceDaily article here

Borja G. Reguero, Iñigo J. Losada, Fernando J. Méndez. A recent increase in global wave power as a consequence of oceanic warmingNature Communications, 2019; 10 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-08066-0

Sea level rise puts coastal areas at the forefront of the impacts of climate change, but new research shows they face other climate-related threats as well. Scientists found that the energy of ocean waves has been growing globally, and they found a direct association between ocean warming and the increase in wave energy.

A wide range of long-term trends and projections carry the fingerprint of climate change, including rising sea levels, increasing global temperatures, and declining sea ice. Analyses of the global marine climate thus far have identified increases in wind speeds and wave heights in localized areas of the ocean in the high latitudes of both hemispheres. These increases have been larger for the most extreme values (e.g., winter waves) than for the mean conditions. However, a global signal of change and a correlation between the localized increases in wave heights and global warming had remained undetected….

….While the study reveals a long-term trend of increasing wave energy, the effects of this increase are particularly apparent during the most energetic storm seasons, as occurred during the winter of 2013-14 in the North Atlantic, which impacted the west coast of Europe, or the devastating 2017 hurricane season in the Caribbean, which offered a harsh reminder of the destructive power and economic impacts of coastal storms.

The effects of climate change will be particularly noticeable at the coast, where humans and oceans meet, according to coauthor Fernando J. Méndez, associate professor at Universidad de Cantabria. “Our results indicate that risk analysis neglecting the changes in wave power and having sea level rise as the only driver may underestimate the consequences of climate change and result in insufficient or maladaptation,” he said.


Antarctica losing six times more ice mass annually now than 40 years ago

Climate change-induced melting will raise global sea levels for decades to come

University of California – Irvine Read ScienceDaily article here Read Washington Post article here: An alarming study shows massive East Antarctic ice sheet already is a significant contributor to sea-level rise

Eric Rignot, et al. Four decades of Antarctic Ice Sheet mass balance from 1979–2017PNAS, January 14, 2019 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1812883116

Antarctica experienced a sixfold increase in yearly ice mass loss between 1979 and 2017, according to a study published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Glaciologists from the University of California, Irvine, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Netherlands’ Utrecht University additionally found that the accelerated melting caused global sea levels to rise more than half an inch during that time.

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak,” said lead author Eric Rignot, Donald Bren Professor and chair of Earth system science at UCI. “As the Antarctic ice sheet continues to melt away, we expect multi-meter sea level rise from Antarctica in the coming centuries.”

For this study, Rignot and his collaborators conducted what he called the longest-ever assessment of remaining Antarctic ice mass. Spanning four decades, the project was also geographically comprehensive; the research team examined 18 regions encompassing 176 basins, as well as surrounding islands….

The pace of melting rose dramatically over the four-decade period. From 1979 to 2001, it was an average of 48 gigatons annually per decade. The rate jumped 280 percent to 134 gigatons for 2001 to 2017. …

From WaPo:

The findings are the latest sign that the world could face catastrophic consequences if climate change continues unabated. In addition to more-frequent droughts, heat waves, severe storms and other extreme weather that could come with a continually warming Earth, scientists already have predicted that seas could rise nearly three feet globally by 2100 if the world does not sharply decrease its carbon output. But in recent years, there has been growing concern that the Antarctic could push that even higher.

That kind of sea-level rise would result in the inundation of island communities around the globe, devastating wildlife habitats and threatening drinking-water supplies. Global sea levels have already risen seven to eight inches since 1900…..

Desalination plants produce more waste brine than than previously thought

There’s enough wastewater from the world’s facilities to cover Florida a foot deep—here’s why that’s a potential problem.

By Tik Root Read full National Geographic article here

As clean freshwater has become scarcer around the world—especially in arid regions such as the Middle East and North Africa—those countries that can afford it have increasingly turned to desalination. That energy-intensive process extracts salt from sea (or other saline) water, transforming it into water that’s fit for human consumption. There are now nearly 16,000 desalination plants either active or under construction across the globe.

“[But] they don’t just produce desalinated water,” explains Manzoor Qadir, a researcher at the United Nations University in Canada. “They also produce brine.” Brine is the concentrated salt water that’s left after desalination. But Qadir says, “there is no comprehensive assessment” of how much is being produced. …Qadir’s team analyzed available literature as well as a database of roughly 20,000 desalination plants (including some that are no longer active)….

The literature had long assumed a one-to-one ratio. But Qadir’s study found that the average desalination plant actually produced 1.5 times more brine than desalinated water—fifty percent more than previously thought. That translates to 51.8 billion cubic meters of brine each year, which Qadir says is enough to cover all of Florida, a foot deep.

….Arguably best known [deleterious impact of desalination] is the copious amount of fossil fuels that are often used to power the plants, resulting in a significant amount of emissions. Most desalination plants work by reverse osmosis, meaning energy is needed to push water past a membrane at high pressure in order to separate the salt (learn more how it works). A typical plant takes an average of 10 to 13 kilowatt hours of energy per every thousand gallons processed. That energy use adds to the cost of the process. A recent desalination plant in California cost a billion dollars, and now provides about ten percent of the drinking water of the county of San Diego. The cost, and environmental impacts, of this overall industry have spurred researchers to look for alternatives, including developing more efficient separation membranes and desalination units that can be powered by solar energy. (Learn more about these emerging efforts.)

On the intake side, Burt says that small organisms such as fish larvae and coral can get sucked into a plant. But the greater risk comes at the other end of the process, when the brine is put back into the ocean (where the majority of desalination is done)…..

“Brine will be substantially higher in salinity than normal oceanic water,” he said. “The brine discharge is also warm.” Those conditions, he says, can make it more difficult for marine life in the immediate vicinity of the discharge to survive or thrive.

What Burt is more concerned about, however, are the chemicals that are often in the brine. Qadir’s study points to copper and chlorine as particularly troublesome compounds. …